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Gabriel Boric: Chile's democracy 'still under construction'

Diego Zuniga
September 11, 2023

In an exclusive interview with DW, Chilean President Gabriel Boric talks about the political polarization caused by the 1973 coup and highlights the strength of today's institutions and democracy in Chile.

Chilean President Gabriel Boric
Chilean President Gabriel Boric Image: Christophe Ena/AP/picture alliance

"For me, politics is not a game of arithmetic," Chilean President Gabriel Boric told DW. "I believe that democracy, to be strengthened and to take care of itself, has to know how to respond … to the needs of our citizens."

Boric, Chile’s president since March 2022, is the country’s eighth elected leader since Augusto Pinochet’s military rule ended in 1990. The 37-year-old was born more than a decade after Pinochet’s violent coup ousted the Marxist president, Salvador Allende, on September 11, 1973, but like many Chileans he too has had to grapple with its aftermath.

In an exclusive interview with DW's Jenny Perez to mark the 50th anniversary of the 1973 coup, Boric spoke of the current role of the armed forces, the challenges faced by his government and the changes he himself has undergone since he was elected.

"Taking office as president of Chile means you have to adapt when it comes to certain things. You are ruling over an entire country, and, therefore, you represent the whole of Chilean society, those who voted for you and those who didn't," said Boric, who is also the leader of Chile’s left-wing Social Convergence Party.

"But my longing for social justice, for social transformation, for progress toward a fairer distribution of wealth, toward a total end to discrimination against women and sexual diversity, toward a development that is just and integral, remains intact," he said, adding that he remained "a person with left-wing convictions."

Chile's most leftist president since Allende

These political positions, and the fact that Boric is Chile's most progressive head of state in the past 50 years, have influenced the commemorative events around the anniversary of the coup and Allende's death on September 11, 1973.

Boric said that given the chance he would thank the president [Allende] for his commitment, courage and sacrifice.

"I would tell him that we are working hard to follow in his footsteps, hoping 'to continue opening great avenues again, where free men and women can walk together to build a better society,'"

Chilean President Gabriel Boric wearing a sash waving from a convertible with a large crowd in the background
Boric is Chile's eighth leader since the end of Augusto Pinochet's military dictatorshipImage: Matias Delacroix/AP/picture alliance

Boric said citing from the last speech Allende ever made on the day he died.

It remains unclear to this day whether Allende's death was suicide or murder.

The repercussions of Pinochet's dictatorship still divide much of Chilean society. Boric had campaigned for a bigger event marking the anniversary of the 1973 coup, but according to a survey by pollster Pulso Ciudadano at least 60% of Chileans were not interested. 

A "Pact for Peace," an effort introduced by Boric's predecessor to resolve the social and political conflict that has triggered countrywide protests since 2019, was also divisive. During his presidency, Boric has attempted to improve coexistence through minimum agreements of democratic respect, including the rewriting of the constitution, but the country's right-wing and center-right parties have not supported his efforts. He has championed the idea of a "Pact for Democracy."

"We continue to have differences as to why this institutional breakdown is taking place, and I see with concern that there are many right-wing leaders who insist on the idea that without Allende, there would have been no Pinochet," said Boric. "When you think about what that means, it is very worrying. It means that should there be another constitutional government they do not like and a climate of polarization and political difficulties, then the answer is a coup d'etat and a dictatorship.

"I hope Chilean society agrees with me when I say that we will always solve the problems of democracy with more democracy and not less. And that nothing will ever justify violating the human rights of those who think differently," he said.

Boric believes it's a positive development that all of Chile's living ex-presidents, including the center-right Sebastian Pinera, have signed the Pact for Democracy.

No danger of another coup

When asked about Chilean society taking a possible ultraconservative turn and the increase in more radical visions from all sectors, Boric told DW he was worried. He stressed the need for the government to respond to the "needs of our citizens."

"In Chile, we have been waiting 10 years for a pension reform. Not only do pensions not go up, but the trust Chileans have in democracy as a mechanism for solving their problems is weakened," he said.

"Democracy, from my point of view, is an end in itself, and we have to be looking after it constantly, watering it, caring for it," he said, adding that it was "based on consensus."

"The art of politics, the art of fair policies, is to reach agreements among those who think differently for the sake of a shared common good. And when societies become polarized, that shared common good can seem distant."

Gabriel Boric
Chilean President Boric has shown an affinity for Salvador Allende, who was ousted in a coup by General Augusto Pinochet in 1973Image: ORF

However, Boric said he did not believe there was a danger of the events of September 1973 being repeated in Chile: "It would be irresponsible of me to say so," he pointed out.

He also highlighted recent policy achievements, such as mining royalties or reducing the work week to 40 hours, as examples of how Chilean democracy can function.

"I believe that the opposition is playing a role, which has indeed resulted in a blockage to certain reforms, but it is part of how democracy works, and it is up to us to seek and explore new ways of reaching agreements," he said.

And the role of the military? "Now, I am certain that the armed forces are not looking to engage in any kind of adventure and that they are steadfast constitutionalists and respectful of the constitution and the rule of law," Boric stated.

'Democracies are constantly perfecting themselves'

The Chilean president's confidence lies in the strength of the country's institutions but he recognizes that maintaining democracy is an ongoing process.

"Chilean democracy is a democracy that is still under construction. I would not say that there is a moment when democracies are fully consolidated because societies change, and with change comes new challenges," he said.

"The inclusion of the feminist movement in our society, for example, has been very organic given the way politics was understood until 10 years ago. The old idea of infinite development at any cost is not only being questioned today. It is seen as something that could endanger the very survival of humanity. So democracies are constantly perfecting themselves."

Referring to the fact that the Chilean dictatorship came about in the context of the Cold War, which led to numerous military regimes in the region, Boric pointed out that "the power of arms is very meager. It vanishes with time. Bodies can disappear, people can be murdered, comrades can be tortured, but the dignity of those who fell and those who fight for a free country always ends up prevailing.

"And this is valid for the history of Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil and so many other Latin American dictatorships — or the world," he warned.

'We have to defend' democracy, human rights

Since his presidency began in 2022, Boric has also stood out on the international stage for his condemnation of leftist dictatorships in the region. In this regard, the president said he wasn't afraid of criticism.

"I am convinced that, in terms of human rights, we must have a single standard, both from the historical point of view and from a whole of society point of view, and therefore, we cannot go around choosing which autocracies we like and which we don't like," he said.

"If we value and defend democracy and, in particular, the universal respect for human rights as an advance of humanity, we have to defend it from the left, center, and right, whether we are red or blue. And I will stay firm on this no matter who it bothers."

US discloses role in 1973 coup

Boric also spoke in favor of the recent gesture by the United States to declassify documents outlining the role of the world power in the 1973 coup.

"The US ambassador to Chile has been very open to it. Some documents have already been declassified, and I believe that the position of the United States today is clear when it comes to condemning what happened," he said.

"However, we can always do more. The Nixon administration at the time made every possible effort — and this is all documented — first, to prevent President Allende from taking office and then to hinder and create the conditions of chaos that allowed for the coup."

US President Richard Nixon's administration was heavily involved in the events leading up to the coup in Chile, with the CIA helping to finance opposition efforts to organize strikes by truck drivers and shop owners. The US also backed Pinochet's government despite his regime's human rights record.

Chilean President Gabriel Boric shaking the hand of German Chancellor Olaf Scholz with the Chilean and German flags in the background
Boric (right) is optimistic about cooperating with Scholz (left) when it comes to investigating the German sect Colonia DignidadImage: Geert Vanden Wijngaert/AP/picture alliance

Boric said that he would ask for information on the alleged collaboration of the West German intelligence service with the Pinochet dictatorship and the German sect Colonia Dignidad, which cooperated with the regime.

"I have talked about this with Chancellor [Olaf] Scholz the few times I have met him. From what I have seen, I think he is keen to collaborate in everything related to the investigation and recognition of what happened in Colonia Dignidad," said Boric.

There has been an agreement to install plaques in memory of the victims of the German sect, although there have been no significant advances on that front. Boric said that "just a bit of willpower" is needed for that.

"What is clear to us is that there are still many dark elements around, even 50 years after the breakdown of democracy in Chile. Therefore, we will continue to fight for truth and justice." 

This article was originally written in Spanish.

Chile's Boric: 'We will continue to fight for truth'